I am from my father playing trumpet in the basement of our old Connecticut home, midnight and he could not sleep. I woke to hear, from three floors away, the muted sound of “It Might As Well Be Spring”. Or maybe He would be at the piano, just before dinner, his drink on the slick black baby grand, finding his way through “Isn’t it romantic”, or “What a wonderful world”. Music formed me, white as white could be in New England’s rocky countryside. Yet I am from his East St. Louis, St. Louis nights at the clubs, earning money for Central College tuition in Iowa. Days he worked at the hospital, white pants and shirt, sweeping, cleaning, escorting old women on his arm out of the front door, or even to the trolley stop nearby. But on those nights, it was Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn tunes, a way to spend the darkening hours. I am from sounds passed down, LP’s clicking from one to another on the record player, so that jazz and big band music was our weekends, our evenings when he was home. He was a long way from his East St. Louis childhood to our horseback riding on the beach in Milford, or New Year’s eve parties at the Stoddards, in his tuxedo, she in something silk and falling in folds, blue, green, yellow twirling from her waist as they danced.Can you hear the echoes, the music all the way through this? One of the reasons I paint in oils now, is that it is an excuse to listen to blues while I work, a signal to studio mates to stay away.
I am from pages and pages she read into the night, with a baby on her shoulder, pacing the upstairs rooms to lull Mark or Peter to sleep. I am books laid on the side table in the living room, her reading glasses near by, the pages deckle edged, the words of Dickens, Rumer Godden, Daphne DuMaurier, John Steinbeck laid out before me, as I wandered the rooms, nine years old, free to roam early in my life. I am from the books now, on my walls, in low shelves near the kitchen, on my kindle, piled near my desk. I am from her disappearance. She needed to be called out two, three times to attract her soft brown eyes, vague smile, when she was immersed in story. I am from words, explaining, later challenging them both with my life, my work, my man. I received the words from them, from how he carefully explained the way wind flattened a sail when it caught, or how to serve an accurate corner shot in tennis, when I played against Hotchy Rippere, the neighbor up the hill. Words came to me from her, and came back to her when I argued, each time I returned home. They each gave me complete sentences, a way to persuade the world, so early.
I am from civil rights marches, anti- war marches, around the White House, college days, so handy to me, college girl in the big city, DC for the first time. I am from late nights on trains, heading even further south, from hot nights, from old men waving to the cars that scattered their darkness with gold windows and a rush of sound. I am from music, again, music, as we sang “Aint gonna let governor Wallace turn me round”, or “Amazing Grace”. How it weaves through my life, the voices, the words, the singing that comforts me to this day, his trumpet behind it, around it, a part of it all.
I am from Jewish family who adopted me, seders and latkes, songs, Manischevitz wine, laughter, hiding the afikomen, the dreidel, the minora on our shelf, the 2nd Avenue Deli in Manhattan. I am from learning to speak up, argue, come back to argue again, –loud voices of my husband’s Aunts in the background when we talked on the phone. I am growing into my anger, learning how to be with it, fight with it, organize with it…and how to resolve it, all from my husband and his people. I am from the East coast, Connecticut, New York, DC, places that asked such different things from me. My mother came from great reserve. My father from tight, floor pacing anger, erupting into shouts, withdrawal. Yet his warmth, his elegance, his kind consideration of his mother who lived with us most of my growing up, was there too. And her listening to those who dropped by for a Saturday morning chat, whose kids ate meals at my house, sandwiches doled out on our kitchen counter like a fast food restaurant, her generosity was a quiet, unremarked part of our lives.
I am from leaving them, separating from our tension my whole adult life. It is only now that I realize what I took with me, how our reconciliation as he lay dying, and how he asked me to come then, because he had read about my work with those with AIDS, was as much who I am now as all the years in between our infrequent visits.
I am from writing, loving paper, empty pages, the flow of the pen, the sight of the sentences walking across the screen, all of it, and this, too, he gave me, with his books about being a test pilot, Air Base, This Exciting Air, Whistling Death, his unfinished novel left after he was gone. I am from his escape to his study at night, to write articles, essays, poems, while his five children slept. I could look down from a window in the hallway near my bedroom and see him there, across the yard, bent over his typewriter, models of Corsairs on the shelf above him. He gave me this, the patience with language, the rearrangement of letters, of words, to bring to the world, to the page, to the private journal, the spiral notebook, what was on my mind. I am from how he relished the solitude of the writer, the chance to be alone.
I am from all the things, too, that hindered my life, the caution around mentioning my body, the excessive restriction of boarding school for three years, the definition of what it meant to be a woman, the silence around sex, love, death. And yet, too, I am from climbing trees when I was only five, going into the woods with my brother when I was 10, sometimes, being gone for the whole day. I was raised on horseback, on swimming in the surf after a hurricane, sailing into the foggy mornings off Atlantic beaches.
These and more I carry, we all carry: ways of being raised or reprimanded, ways of being let go, or kept close, ways of sound and argument, music and language. This is what I am from– not only the landscapes, the cities I have grown to love, the beaches, the bridges, the lakes, the apartment building across the way, at night, a woman pouring herself a glass of wine after a long day of work, but also, the fight in me, the desire for a revolutionary shift in our country, in how we treat those we formerly enslaved, those whose land we took the first moment we landed on these shores. I am from all that I take from my first family, and I am from all that I have created apart from them, in opposition. We gather ourselves and strike out on our own, and this, going, this too, is where we are from. And it is who we are as we come together to speak and sing and dance, for the salvation of this country, of this broken world.